Linux keyboard configuring and building the latest kernel.

How to Build Linux Kernels

The Linux Kernel is Very Different from Services and User Applications

The Linux kernel is the core of the operating system itself. The kernel directly detects and controls the hardware. It controls the running processes: creating those processes, allocating memory and CPU cycles, and enforcing permissions on files, devices, network sockets, and inter-process communication. It does not include the network services or other privileged processes, and all user programs are certainly not part of it (although those services and other processes can only run with the kernel's assistance). The boot loader loads the kernel memory and starts it, and the kernel remains resident in memory until it shuts the system down.

As for what the user does from the command line, through the graphical user interface, or through scheduled jobs, those are processes which run in what is called "user space", where all addresses are virtual and processes run only in the ways the kernel allows. A process cannot access hardware directly as it is only has virtual addresses. The kernel, however, runs in "kernel space" and directly accesses hardware through physical addresses.

When a process wants to utilize hardware, it does so through the kernel. This is subject to the kernel's enforcement of ownership and access permission, and the kernel's mapping between the virtual address space of the process and the physical address space of the hardware. The user process asks to open and read the content of a file by using the open() system call. Kernel modules for hardware (SATA controller chipset, disk block devices) and software (Ext4/XFS/BtrFS file systems) functionality are involved, but the user process only sees the open() system call interface.

Similarly, a user process request to establish a connection to a network service on another machine through the socket() system call ultimately involves hardware (Ethernet chipset) and software (IP and TCP protocols) functionality.

Upgrading the Kernel, Versus Upgrading Applications

For the most part, these are entirely separate. Yes, it is important to keep both your kernel and your applications patched and up to date. But you don't have to update user applications when you update the kernel, or vice-versa.

I had to hedge by saying "For the most part" because some applications are sensitive to kernel version. However, these applications that deal with kernel data structures are used only by system administrators, not by ordinary users. These applications handle tasks like testing or manipulating packet filtering rules, creating and repairing file systems, configuring IP addresses and netmasks, and other kernel-related tasks.

See the file /usr/src/linux/Documentation/Changes for the list of sensitive programs, their required versions for that specific kernel release, and the commands to run to discover which versions you have.

Do You Need to Build a Kernel?

The answer very likely is "No"! If there is a security hole in the kernel, or a significant performance improvement becomes available, your distribution should provide an update package soon.

However, building and running a custom kernel teaches you a great deal about how the system boots, how to do troubleshooting, and about the myriad capabilities of the operating system.

Let's build our own kernel!

Overview of the Steps

This is a sizeable project, so let's start with a quick overview of the steps:

First, download the kernel source, which will be a large compressed tar archive file. Make sure to verify its digital signature! We want to be certain that we're running the real Linux operating system, not something with back doors installed by the bad guys. Since the kernel itself is the ultimate mechanism for access control, a subverted kernel is the ultimate software exploit. A digital signature verifies the data integrity and the identity of the provider of the source archive.

Second, install the kernel source in /usr/src/linux/.

Third, configure a new kernel build. The only approach that makes sense is to start with a useful kernel configuration file, the configuration for the kernel currently running on your hardware is the obvious choice. With that as a starting point, you may need to make some changes.

Finally, build the new kernel defined by that configuration and install it. All of this should just simply work, but just in case we will keep our current kernel as a backup alternative.

Now that you see where we're going with this, let's get started!

Obtain the kernel source and understand the Linux kernel version numbers

The kernel source itself is available from kernel.org

You will need the kernel tar archive file, a rather large file named something like:
linux-release.tar.bz2
and the corresponding very small digital signature file:
linux-release.tar.bz2.sign
where release is either two or three numbers separated by dots, something like 3.10 or 3.10.6

You need to understand the Linux release numbering scheme. You will see kernel releases with both two and three numbers. The two-number version represents the release in terms of potential capabilities. They increment as 3.0, 3.1, 3.2, and so on. It rolls over at a fairly arbitrary point. It went from 2.xx to 3.0 at the first release after the 20th anniversary of the public release of Linux in August, 2012. Then Linus Torvalds decided to do that more often, and in early 2015 it went from 3.19 to 4.0.

The 4.0 kernel release includes more features, more modules or device drivers, than 3.19. The 3.19 release in turn included more features than 3.18. These new features might be for hardware, like new network interfaces based on recently developed chipsets. Or they might be software modules, possibly new options for networking protocols or file systems.

The third number, if present, represents bug fixes. The 3.19.1 release includes patches to some bugs discovered in the 3.19 release. In turn, the 3.19.2 release includes more patches, the 3.X.Y releases are cumulative bug fixes to 3.X. And, of course, the 3.19 series includes all the bug fixes in the 3.18 series.

The kernel organization has strict rules: 4.X.Y releases must be bug fixes only, no sneaking new features into the kernel before the 4.(X+1) release! And the fixes should be small, involving 100 lines or less of C code.

You could imagine the releases laid out in a grid:

Release Bug fixes
3.17 3.17.1 3.17.2 3.17.3 3.17.4 3.17.5 3.17.6 3.17.7 ...
3.18 3.18.1 3.18.2 3.18.3 3.18.4 3.18.5 3.18.6 3.18.7 ...
3.19 3.19.1 3.19.2 3.19.3 3.19.4 3.19.5 3.19.6 3.19.7 ...
4.0 4.0.1 4.0.2 4.0.3 4.0.4 4.0.5
4.1 4.1.1 4.1.2
4.2
...

The actual grid would be enormous. There may be a hundred or more bug fix releases for one major 3.X release, and before 3.X there was 0.X, 1.X, and 2.X major release series.

So, which version do you need? That depends on your hardware — the latest 3.X.Y should be fine, but you may not really need the very latest if the recent feature additions and bug fixes were in drivers for hardware you don't own.

Server hardware tends to be conservative. Unless you just bought new server motherboards, an older release is likely just fine as far as hardware support goes. Performance improvements in software modules (TCP, file systems) are much more likely to interest you.

Laptop / notebook hardware evolves much more quickly. Recent portable systems are likely to include WLAN or Bluetooth (and possibly even Ethernet) chipsets not supported in the older kernel releases included in more conservative distributions.

Now, having decided on some 3.X release to include all the features you need, do you really need the very latest 3.X.Y set of bug fixes?

This sounds dangerous, but not necessarily. This is because many of those bug fixes apply to modules for hardware you don't own, therefore modules you will not use.

My suggestion is to use the latest 3.X.Y available at the time, but then not to try to always upgrade to every bug-fix release that comes out after that. Watch the advisories, see when it makes sense to upgrade. By the time you need to go to a newer 3.X.Y, a kernel in a later 3.X series would likely be a better choice.

Make absolutely certain that you really have the kernel source

You do not want to run some hacker's operating system instead of the real kernel!

You must verify both the integrity of the data you just downloaded and the identity of its source. In other words, is it really the kernel source, and did it really come from the Linux kernel organization?

To be safe, you need to check the digital signature with GNU Privacy Guard (GnuPG) or similar.

See the digital signature section of my "Just Enough Cryptography" pages for an explanation of what digital signatures are.

See the page on verifying digital signatures to learn how to apply this technology. Verification is vital, but an explanation right here would make this page at least as much about digital signatures as about building Linux kernels! Really, go look at that other page, this page will be right here waiting for you when you get back....

Install the kernel source

From here forward, I will use oldrelease and release to stand for, well, whatever your old and new releases will be! You will have to think just a little.

You need to do some steps as root here, so become root with the su command. If you are using Ubuntu or a derivative, use sudo bash to get a root shell.

Your distribution or earlier work by yourself or other administrators may have already installed kernel source under a directory named /usr/src/linux-oldrelease with a symbolic link pointing to it. Find out, and if necessary, remove that link:

# cd /usr/src
# ls -l
# rm linux

Extract the kernel source with the following. You must be in the right directory, /usr/src, and I leave it up to you to figure out where you put that downloaded archive file. I mean, really, if you can't keep track of where you put a downloaded file then you have no business trying to build a kernel. But my experience tells me that I need to put two commands here to keep some people from making horrible messes of things:

# cd /usr/src
# tar xvf /path/to/linux-release.tar.xz

Recreate the symbolic link, so that other software can be compiled on your system. If you're really curious, software making calls to system libraries need to find the include files under /usr/src/linux/include and this will support that. Or just take my word for it, this is important:

# ln -s linux-release linux
# ls -l

The tar archive may have created files owned by some random UID other than 0, meaning root. This is not good! Fix it and make sure that everything has worked so far:

# chown -R root:root linux-release
# ls -laF

You should see something like the following:

total 16
drwxr-xr-x   4 root   root    4096 May 28 19:02 ./
drwxr-xr-x  15 root   root    4096 May 28 21:28 ../
lrwxrwxrwx   1 root   root      17 May 28 19:02 linux -> linux-release@
drwxr-xr-x  19 root   root    4096 May 28 19:02 linux-release/
drwxr-xr-x  19 root   root    4096 Apr 06 08:29 linux-oldrelease/

Now, just to be safe, let's remove any stale object files inappropriately cluttering your source tree, so we can build a fresh clean kernel:

# cd /usr/src/linux
# make clean

Install an initial kernel configuration file

From here on, we will just rely on /usr/src/linux to be set up and pointing to the new source tree, making the pathnames a little simpler if we need to mention them. However, almost everything should be done in the directory /usr/src/linux and so there is little need to mention full path names!

There are thousands of choices to be made when configuring a kernel build, and if you just dive in and start answering them you probably will not get enough of them right to produce a kernel that boots.

However, you are running some kernel that boots and runs on your hardware. I would presume that it is probably of an earlier release if you are like most people who would read this page, but its configuration would be a good starting point.

The very best solution would be to ask the running kernel how it is configured. That way you would get the truth. So, try that:

# zcat /proc/config.gz > .config

If that didn't work, maybe your kernel supports this but only as a loadable module. So, let's try loading that module and asking again:

# modprobe ikconfig
# zcat /proc/config.gz > .config

If that worked, great, move on to the next step. If it did not work, you will need to find a configuration file that your distribution should have stored somewhere on the system. Try this while paying attention to the available file name or names. Pick the latest if you have a choice:

# ls /boot
# cp /boot/config-latest-release .config

Red Hat has been known to hide the configuration files in other places:

# ls /usr/src/linux*/.config
# ls /usr/src/linux*/configs

If all else fails:

# find / -name '.config' -o -name 'config-*'

Or, worse yet, try the following, where CONFIG_EXPERIMENTAL is a configuration variable set in the file regardless of architecture. You will probably find that string in other files so you will need to think a little about what you find.

# find / -type f -exec grep 'CONFIG_EXPERIMENTAL=[yn]' {} /dev/null \;

You need to somehow install something appropriate as /usr/src/linux/.config, otherwise the rest of this project will fail.

Configure a kernel build

Let's say that you would like your new kernel to describe itself as version 4.X.Y-whatever instead of plain old 4.X.Y when someone runs the command
$ uname -r
or
$ uname -a

The trick is to edit the file Makefile and change the EXTRAVERSION line in its opening to the following. Do not change the VERSION, PATCHLEVEL, or SUBLEVEL values! Leave those numbers alone.

VERSION = 4
PATCHLEVEL = X
SUBLEVEL = Y
EXTRAVERSION = -whatever

Be careful you must be very conservative in what you use for the EXTRAVERSION field! The string needs to be fairly short and contain nothing but letters, numbers, "." and "-". Any other punctuation marks or white space will cause horrible problems later. Also be careful to not add any white space to the ends of the lines, some very literal-minded scripts will process the Makefile.

Best practice: Leave this alone unless you know what you're doing! But if you do change EXTRAVERSION:

Now you are ready for the fun part! You are finally ready to run the kernel build configuration tool. I am being a little fussy by saying "kernel build configuration" instead of "kernel configuration", but that is what you are doing. You are specifying how to build a kernel, as we do with Linux and BSD. You are not configuring pre-existing kernel modules as you might do with Solaris.

The more friendy interface is started like this:

# make gconfig &

However, that may require some Gnome or GTK packages that you haven't installed, and either you haven't set up YUM or urpmi to make installation easy or you just don't want to add those packages. In that case try the following. If that doesn't work either, then it's time to install those packages....

# make xconfig &

The terminal emulator where you ran that command will have lots of output, including some error messages about setting kernel variables that were not defined and perhaps about specified settings for kernel variables that do not exist. Don't panic! Remember what you did — you started with the configuration of an older kernel to build a newer one. The kernel feature set changes from version to version, and so we expect to see these rather mild warning messages.

I believe that it only makes sense to build the kernel configuration into the kernel itself. Do this:
Under General Setup select:
  Kernel .config support
and then select:
  Enable access to .config through /proc/config.gz
If you build it into the monolithic kernel (shown as a check mark in the configuration tool) it will always be there. If you build it as a loadable module then it will only appear when the appropriate module is loaded, you will need to first do something like this:
# modprobe ikconfig
and then the kernel data structure will appear as /proc/config.gz. I would suggest simply building this into the monolithic kernel so the configuration is always available.

Make sure that all the available Netfilter modules will be built. This is where I have most often run into trouble. NAT or Network Address Translation functionality might have been moved into a new module, if you don't also build that module then iptables address translation won't work. Find the Netfilter modules in:

Your configuration should otherwise be pretty close to what you want, and in many or even most cases it would be reasonable to just save the settings at that point and exit the tool.

However, you probably should explore the kernel configuration just to learn about how many things the Linux kernel can support.

Just try not to do anything terribly silly like disabling support for your hard drive controller. Unless you really do want a kernel that will not boot...

Save and exit when you have finished exploring.

Build your new kernel

This is much easier than many people expect. Start by seeing the list of available build targets:

# make help | less

There are two main ways of doing this. The traditional method builds a monolithic kernel and a huge collection of load modules, and a later step easily puts them all into their proper locations. Alternatively, you could build an RPM package.

Traditional build

Start building the monolithic kernel and loadable modules:

# make all

If you have multiple CPU cores, you might use the -jN option to allow multiple simultaneous processes. For example, if you have four cores, this may finish almost four times as quickly:

# make -j4 all

Package build

However, wouldn't it be better to include your kernel in your configuration management? This is easier when you build the kernel as a package. Let's build both source and binary RPM packages. Add -jN as appropriate:

# make rpm-pkg

Now be patient... Go get some coffee or make a pot of tea. Or maybe get lunch. This will take a while. Probably an hour or more on a single core. On a system with an AMD Phenom II X4 965 processor with 4 cores, below is the CPU core utilization both without and with the -j4 option.

xosview output for compiling a kernel using 1 of 4 cores.

xosview -mem -page -swap -ints +net &
make all

xosview output for compiling a kernel using 1 of 4 cores.

xosview -mem -page -swap -ints +net &
make -j4 all

Here are the timing results of kernel builds with different numbers of cores in use. As for the times:

real = Total elapsed time, what the clock on the wall would show.

user = Time spent running user processes. This is the total time the CPUs spent doing the actual computation.

system = Time spent running kernel processes. For this task, this value is going to be disk I/O.

The i7 CPU goes faster than the Core 2 CPU, the single-core build takes less than half as much user time (that is, actual computation) on the i7.

The Intel i7 platform has much faster disks, with an 8 GB solid-state disk in front of a faster mechanical disk. Look at how much less system time (file system I/O) is needed! Only about 20-25% of the required system time, so the i7 platform's disks are four to fives times as fast. So, the system and real (wall-clock) times can't be directly compared between the Intel Core 2 Duo and the Intel i7.

Yes, the total user and system times increase slightly with an increase in the number of cores in use. I believe this is because some things are needlessly re-compiled: a compilation has started on one core, it isn't finished yet, and so it is also started on another core.

Platform Command Time
Intel Core 2 Duo
2 cores (using 1)
make rpm-pkg
87m 10s real
60m 41s user
20m 25s system 
Intel Core 2 Duo
2 cores (using 2)
make -j2 rpm-pkg
53m 59s real
69m 10s user
23m 38s system 
Intel i7
4 cores (using 1)
make rpm-pkg
42m 41s real
26m 00s user
04m 17s system 
Intel i7
4 cores (using 2)
make -j2 rpm-pkg
25m 04s real
35m 38s user
06m 02s system 
Intel i7
4 cores (using 4)
make -j4 rpm-pkg
15m 56s real
38m 09s user
06m 42s system 

Someone asked me about the additional electrical power consumption associated with BOINC volunteer grid computing system. Measuring the mains power being supplied to the system case I found the following on a system with an AMD Phenom II X4 965 CPU, 8 GB RAM, one 2 TB SATA drive, two 1 TB SATA drives, and a 500 GB PATA drive:

Power System state
102 W Booted to text console, no processing
200-209 W Building a kernel with -j4 option to use all four cores
207-228 W Running BOINC

Since my home uses electrical heat, during the time of the year when some heating is needed it might as well come from the system case instead of the heating registers.

Install your new kernel

This is much easier than it used to be. It hasn't been difficult for some time, but some people are still scared off by criticisms that haven't been appropriate for ages now.

If you did a traditional build:

# make modules_install
# make install

The resulting collection of modules will be quite large, around 2 GB, because the modules include debugging symbols. You can strip those out by using the following sequence instead. This results in the same set of modules occupying just 130-150 MB:

# make INSTALL_MOD_STRIP=1 modules_install
# make install

If you built a package:

First, let's see what got built:

# tree ~/rpmbuild/*RPMS

Let's be cautiously confident — our new kernel is almost certainly going to work! But just in case it doesn't, we don't want to remove our existing and functioning kernel. So, we need to simply install the new kernel, leaving the old one in place, as opposed to doing it as an upgrade and removing the old one. Something like this, modified as needed to reflect your architecture and kernel release:

# rpm -ivh /usr/src/whatever/RPMS/arch/kernel-release.arch.rpm

That should have built and installed an "initrd", an initial RAM disk image, and then modified the boot loader. That sounds awfully complicated, and it used to be. Now it should be done by post-install scripts build into the RPM package. If it wasn't done, you can do it with one long command:

# new-kernel-pkg --mkinitrd --install --make-default --depmod release

Modify the boot loader, if necessary

The kernel build process will handle this for you if you do it correctly.

In a traditional build, the make install step handles this.

In a package build, the RPM package should include post-install scripts to handle this.

See my How Linux Boots page for details on the GRUB boot loader and its configuration.

If you're doing this on an Alpha, ignore all this about GRUB and modify /etc/aboot.conf and then go see my page specifically about building kernels on Alphas for some further details.

# aboot default configurations
# NOTICE: You have a /boot partition. This means that
# all kernel paths are relative to /boot/
0:2/vmlinuz-4.X.Y-whatever initrd=/initrd-4.X.Y-whatever root=/dev/sda4 quiet
1:2/vmlinuz-current initrd=/initrd-current root=/dev/sda4 quiet
2:2/vmlinuz-previous initrd=/initrd-previous root=/dev/sda4 quiet

Reboot and Enjoy!

You didn't do anything silly like get rid of your functional old kernel, right? Or configure your boot loader in such a way that it isn't available? Did you?? If so, you may need to boot your system from rescue media and install a functioning kernel.

Keeping Track of Your Work!

You should have made the very reasonable choice of asking for the kernel's configuration, the .config file, to be built into the kernel and made available as /proc/config.gz. That means that all you have to keep track of is your kernel release and a copy of your .config file, a file of a little over 100 kbytes, about a quarter of that if compressed with gzip.

Now Let's Explore Your New Kernel!

Click here to explore Linux kernel details.